Sunday, December 25, 2016

Pondering the Christmas Story

I've had a number of thoughts this Christmas, and given the spirit of season, I felt it appropriate to publicly share what I've come to learn.

When we consider the Christmas story and what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, the story we hear today is romanticized quite a bit.  I think the reality of the events were much more challenging, and looking a little deeper at things it strikes me that this was a tale of considerable hardship.


I can't imagine what this would have been like for Mary.  I think her situation is summed up best with her words, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"  In today's time we may not think an un-wed pregnancy it a serious thing, but to those of Jesus's day it was an act of unspeakable shame.

How would Mary explain this to her parents?  Everyone would have a lot of tough questions, and Mary wouldn't have any answers.  We know from the story in Luke that Mary arose and went "with haste" to visit her cousin Elizabeth (who at the time was six months pregnant with John).  She stayed with Elizabeth for three months.  If she wasn't showing by the time she got back, she wouldn't have long before she had to confront her parents and let them in on her secret.

I can imagine Mary's news caused quite a scandal.  I imagine there was a lot of yelling, a lot of doors slamming in anger, a lot of tears, and a whole lot of heartbreak.  The question on everyone's mind would be, who is the father? I think Mary would have tried to deny that Joseph had any part in this, but who would believe her?  If the father wasn't Joseph, who could it be?

I'm going to assume that Mary's family kept this all hush-hush, and discretely reached out to Joseph's family.  If it were my daughter, that's what I would do, regardless of the situation.


I find it quite a bit easier to put myself in Joseph's place.  I can relate to being a young guy, being engaged, and being giddy with love for someone, and really really looking forward to the day we get married and I can take her as my wife.

I'd have been on cloud 9.

Where was Joseph when he heard the news?  Was he just stopping by Mary's house for a visit?  Or did he hear it though the grapevine?  Either way, he'd have been crushed.  If I were in his place, I would have been deeply hurt, and I would have been supremely ticked.

I imagine sooner or later he would have to face down Mary's parents.  I couldn't imagine walking into their house with a pall of suspicion hanging over me like that.  I couldn't imagine facing their accusing stares, and trying to deny that I had any part in this matter.  I'd be horrified.  The engagement would be off, of course.  It's not my child.  There'd be a lot of tense words on both sides and in the end I'd leave upset, wanting desperately to get away and find somewhere private where I could bawl my eyes out.

And then came the dream.

We're so used to glossing over this part, and we don't really give it much thought.  Things get a little personal here for me.  I've had dreams before.  I've never been visited by an angel, but I know what it's like to wake up and feel completely blown away by what I've seen.  The first thought that goes through your mind is, was that real?  The second thing that goes through your mind is, did it truly come from God?  I can speculate a whole lot of other stuff that must have gone through Joseph's mind, but sooner or later it would get to the point where he had to do something.  Does he ignore it?  Does he trust it?  What was he going to do?  Yeah, I've been there.

You see, Joseph's problem just got a whole lot bigger.  Before this dream, he'd planned to put this whole matter to rest privately.  The gospel of Matthew says that Joseph didn't want to make a big spectacle of things.  Most people agree that this demonstrates how Joseph must have loved Mary.  Regardless, the engagement would be over, and Joseph would move on.  In a few years he'd find another girl and start all over.

But now?  Joseph had a huge choice.  Does he trust the dream?  Because if he marries this girl, everyone is going to think one of two things.  They're either going to think, well of course the baby is Joseph's, we weren't born yesterday, you know?  Shame on you!  Either that, or they're going to think, Joseph, you foolish schmuck!  She's been two-timing you and now she's got to pay the price.  You should leave her to her fate!

I don't know much about the circumstances of Jewish marriage customs.  I'm going to assume that since Joseph had the opportunity to annul the divorce privately that the matter had been kept quiet.  What I'm also going to assume is that Joseph went through a great deal of soul-wrenching.  Getting married is a pretty wonderful thing, but marrying a woman who's preggers with someone else's child is quite another.

I imagine Joseph's family was pretty shocked when he told them what he planned, and why, especially considering how this could look.  It's not easy to trust a dream.  Again, personal experience.  People's first reaction is to think you've gone off the rails.  Then they start questioning every little thing, trying to understand, or second-guessing the way you interpret it.  You end up feeling stupid, and wishing you hadn't said anything and just kept the whole thing to yourself.

And then there's the part where you have to follow through with what the Lord told you to do, and endure years and years of second guessing your own actions, and wondering why things had to be this way, and wondering when or if you were going to see the things come true that the Lord had told you.  It takes a lot of faith and a lot of internal strength, especially when no one has a reason to believe you.


The account in the New Testament of Jesus's birth is agonizingly short on details.  A thought came to me as I was writing this that perhaps God made sure the details were sparse so that the peoples of each culture that read it could flesh out the story in their own way and liken it to them.

The biggest question on my mind, though, is why were Mary and Joseph alone?  At least we assume they were alone.  Had they been disowned?  In today's day we find it unthinkable that Mary, being so far along, would have been completely un-accompanied by family.  I find it unthinkable that Joseph, being of the lineage of King David, and journeying to the city of David would have been unable to find family to put him up and make his wife comfortable.

We just don't know.

For me, this situation would have been heartbreaking.  I've seen my wife pushed to the very edge, and I've had to pick her up and carry her along through life's trials.  I know what it's like to raise a family, starting from nothing.  I can't imagine how it must have been for them.  I imagine that in Joseph's position there are many times when I would have thought the situation seemed hopeless.

In my life I've come to trust the Lord that he always opens up a way.  That's pretty much all you can do.  Trust that God knows your troubles and that if you approach him in prayer he will help you find a way to make things work out.  I'm reminded of the words to a song by Casting Crowns, called Just Be Held:

So when you're on your knees and answers seem so far away
You're not alone, stop holding on and just be held
Your world's not falling apart, it's falling into place
I'm on the throne, stop holding on and just be held
Just be held, just be held
It's amazing to think that the One who rules heaven and earth actually cares about my problems, however small, and has time to answer my prayers.

Merry Christmas, and God bless you!